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Legendary Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi dies aged 90

28 July 2014

Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)
Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)(Photo: Decca/Mike Evans)

Obituary by Ashutosh Khandekar

Carlo Bergonzi’s extraordinary affinity with the music of Verdi was almost inevitable. The great tenor, who died on 25 July aged 90, was born in the northern Italian region of Polesine Parmenese, just a stone’s throw from Verdi’s birthplace near Busseto.

As a child, Bergonzi sang in the local children’s chorus in Busseto, but in his teenage years he trained to be a cheese-maker at his father’s Parmesan factory. Steeped in the music and culture of his local surroundings, he trained first as a pianist, then as a baritone at the Parma Conservatoire.

The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bergonzi. He was interned in Austria for his anti-Nazi campaigning, returning to Italy after the war both physically and mentally exhausted. He took to his musical studies again as a way of regaining his confidence and he made his operatic debut in the baritone role of Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1948.

He continued to sing as a baritone until 1950, when he stepped into the shoes of an indisposed young Tito Gobbi in the title role in Rigoletto: during that performance, Bergonzi recalled that he began to understand that he was no baritone: ‘I didn’t succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments, that the part demands. Still, I saw the performance through. I was very happy to have worn the costume, but the experience gave me the first suggestion that I should change repertory.’

In making the change to tenor, Bergonzi was self-taught, emulating the very best on offer by listening to the recordings of Caruso, ‘for the inimitable purity of the sound’; Gigli, for sheer control ‘from piano to forte’; Schipa, for ‘extraordinary technique’; and Pertile, for his powers of interpretation.

In just three months, Bergonzi launched himself on his career as a tenor. In 1954, he made his La Scala debut in a new opera, Masaniello, by Jacopo Napoli. It was, however, in the operas of Donizetti, Puccini and above all Verdi that Bergonzi really made his mark. The voice never had the beauty of Corelli or Pavarotti, nor the visceral power and drama of Vickers or Domingo. What Bergonzi brought to the operatic stage, in a career that spanned half a century, was natural elegance, technical assuredness and an open-hearted musicality that gave his performances a beguiling and often moving honesty.

The great connoisseur of voices John Steane pointed out that ‘impeccable’ was the adjective most associated with Bergonzi. You can hear his attention to detail and the care that he takes with dynamics and phrasing in so many of the classic opera recordings that he made at the height of his career, recently re-released in a timely 90th-anniversary box set by Decca, under the title Carlo Bergonzi: The Verdi Tenor. Especially notable in this 17-CD set are a miraculously vivid Aida (1959) with Karajan conducting and Renata Tebaldi in the title role. As Radamès, Bergonzi is peerless in his finely judged yet utterly unaffected phrasing. His Alfredo opposite Joan Sutherland’s virtuosic Violetta proves to be the ideal pairing in a 1962 La traviata, full of tenderness and youthful ardour. His Duke in Rigoletto (1964, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role) has a suave nobility that makes the character’s wicked actions seem all the more appalling.

The longevity of Bergonzi’s career means that opera lovers today might still recall his frequent appearances at the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s. By then, his voice had started to show some wear and tear, and his semaphoric acting looked quaintly archaic. Indeed, Bergonzi’s physical presence on stage was never his strongpoint. He once admitted his shortcomings in an interview to The Times: ‘I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.’

The voice, indeed, said it all: few tenors could match Bergonzi’s vocal eloquence, freshness and mastery of phrasing. Even at his disastrous farewell appearance in a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello at Carnegie Hall in 2000, the voice still had moments where the pure, steady timbre of the tenor’s glory years shone through. (In the end, however, the effort of singing one of the most challenging tenor roles at the age of 76 took its toll, and Bergonzi withdrew from the performance after Act II.)

It is in the Decca and Philips recordings of Verdi, mostly dating from the late 1950s and 1960s, that Bergonzi shows himself to be the model tenor, a beacon of superb technique, taste and faultless musicality. It’s hardly surprising that Pavarotti referred to him as ‘The Boss’. In his latter years, he mentored a new generation of tenors by way of the Accademia Verdiana, the singing school that he ran from his hotel, I Due Foscari, in Busseto. Through his teaching, he provided a seamless link to the ‘Grand Tradition’ of great tenors which stretched back through the 20th century to the lifetime of Verdi himself.

  • Carlo Bergonzi, operatic tenor, born 13 July 1924; died 25 July 2014

Giulio Cesare at Wolf Trap Opera

30 June 2014, Virginia, US

Dazzling stars: Ying Fang as Cleopatra with John Holiday as Giulio Cesare
Dazzling stars: Ying Fang as Cleopatra with John Holiday as Giulio Cesare(Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

It is common today for opera companies and festivals, especially the smaller ones, to update Baroque opera both for financial reasons (it is cheaper to buy contemporary clothes than to make the elaborate costumes dictated by the story) and for relevance to today’s audiences (it is easier to relate to the characters’ continuously changing circumstances and emotional states, when they look, behave, and dress like we do). With themes of power, ambition, treachery, lust, love, cruelty and murder Giulio Cesare can be just as relevant today and when Handel composed it in 1724.

Unfolding against the background of an endless sandy desert punctuated by a few pyramids and sphinxes, with various props -couch, liquor bar, bed, huge silver and gold globes - appearing and disappearing for location changes, the opera possessed a veneer of ancient Egyptian symbolism that coloured the modern set and activities.

As I wrote in my review of Galileo, Galilei (Opera Now, October 2013), the most amazing voice (again) belonged to countertenor John Holiday, whose high sweet sound is probably as close to a pure 'castrati' voice as one can hear today. Assaying the title role, and outfitted in a shimmering white Navy uniform, he was not only victorious at the Battle of Pharsalia but also conquered the Wolf Trap stage. Kim Witman, the company's young artist programme director, told me that some vocal lines were bumped up to accommodate his high range and crisp, spotless coloratura. The voice of countertenor Eric Jurenas, who looked like he just stepped off a cruise ship in a white linen suit and tropical-print shirt as the sleazy, tyrant Tolomeo, paled in comparison, although his execution was certainly satisfactory. The other standout was Ying Fang, who dazzled both with her voice, and allure as Cleopatra.

Although the opera was cut from four to a bit more than three hours, it still seemed long, despite the clever and amusing touches director Chas Rader-Shieber sprinkled throughout the work. And the small pit, which required instruments to be placed in the auditorium, appeared to somewhat dampen the spirited conducting of Antony Walker.

Handel's Faramondo in Göttingen, Germany

16 June 2014, Göttingen, Germany

Bold and quirky: Christopher Lowrey and Emily Fons in 'Faramondo'
Bold and quirky: Christopher Lowrey and Emily Fons in 'Faramondo'(Photo: Alciro Theodoro Da Silva)

Music *****
Production ****

Review by Adrian Horsewood

There’s no shortage of confusion in Handel’s operas, but Faramondo has a strong claim to being the most complex; indeed, the plot makes so little sense that the programme helpfully included a diagram of the relationships between the characters.

Faramondo has killed the supposed son of Gustavo but loves Gustavo’s daughter Rosimonda; Gustavo’s son Adolfo is betrothed to Faramondo’s sister Clotilde but Gustavo has designs on her himself. Finally, Teobaldo (who swapped his infant son for Gustavo’s, thus holding the key to the opera’s eventual happy ending) connives with Gernando to try to win for the latter both Gustavo’s kingdom and the hand of Rosimonda.

That this chaos quickly receded into the background in Göttingen was due both to the unwavering ambitions of each character and to director Paul Curran’s bold production: the members of Gustavo’s clan became glitzy casino denizens, while the two other families were portrayed as sparring gangs. The ingenious use of a small number of pieces of set (the work of Gary McCann) gave each faction its own strong look and ‘home’ environment. However, employing such broad brush-strokes meant that the characters’ quirky traits – Clotilde munching on takeaway pizza, or Gernando’s fetishistic sniffing of stolen pairs of Rosimonda’s underwear – mostly seemed unconvincing directorial attempts to inject colour into Handel’s fairly one-dimensional characters.

The music was wholly impressive, with stand-out performances from mezzo-soprano Emily Fons in the title role and from soprano Anna Devin as Clotilde: the former not only dominated the stage with every movement and gesture (not easy when weighed down by bullet-proof armour), but also movingly delivered the role’s tender and heroic moments; Devin’s coloratura and vocal heft were nothing short of spectacular throughout, the role giving her much to get her teeth into (beside the aforementioned pizza). The two very different countertenor roles were sung with dazzling skill by Maarten Engeltjes (Adolfo) and Christopher Lowrey (Gernando), while mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych showed both the outward affection and the inner steel that combine in the character of Rosimonda. Bass Njål Sparbo was the only vocal disappointment as he rasped and snarled his way through the evening, indicating perhaps the constant frustrations and disappointments that Gustavo has to endure, but depriving us of any extended singing.

The FestspielOrchester Göttingen and conductor Laurence Cummings handled the fireworks of the score with aplomb while also creating numerous moments of crystalline beauty; any drama, however complex, would become completely comprehensible if afforded the dedication of such ardent advocates as in Göttingen.

Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne Festival

19 May 2014, Lewes, UK

Lars Woldt as Baron Ochs and Kate Royal as the Marschallin at Glyndebourne
Lars Woldt as Baron Ochs and Kate Royal as the Marschallin at Glyndebourne(Photo: Bill Gooper)

Review by George Hall

Just 10 days following the death of Sir George Christie at the age of 79, the 2014 Glyndebourne Festival got underway with a new production of an opera he particularly loved – as we learned from Gus Christie, who paid moving tribute to his father and predecessor as the Festival’s chairman in a speech preceding the opening performance.

Strauss’s large-scale comedy fits perfectly into the rebuilt opera house that Sir George created: with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on excellent form in the pit, Glyndebourne’s new music director, Robin Ticciati, lavished loving care and attention on a score that sums up the essential appeal of late Romanticism in one emotionally cathartic experience. Orchestrally, this was a Rosenkavalier to savour.

There were choice elements in the cast, too. Kate Royal looked glamorous as the Marschallin, even carrying off with aplomb an opening scene in which she appeared, initially, to be naked. Vocally, there were moments, in the role’s more expansive phrases, when the voice didn’t quite open up fully – though Royal’s immaculate acting and attention to text brought her real and significant success.

As the innocent Sophie, Teodora Gheorghiu offered a vocally pristine, convincingly acted account of her ingénue role. Her rich mezzo slightly larger than the voices of her soprano colleagues, Irish mezzo Tara Erraught appeared as Octavian, the young man in the middle. Some artists – Felicity Lott and Sarah Connolly instantly spring to mind – have possessed the gift of suggesting the maleness of this character in their physical gestures; but while Erraught sang the role to a high level, realising this inherent masculinity eluded her. Michael Kraus was unusually bold and forthright as her father, Faninal. Making a definite splash was the Baron Ochs of German baritone Lars Woldt – a grand and commendably three-dimensional view of a role too often merely parodied.

The visuals, in terms of Paul Steinberg’s complex sets, Nicky Gillibrand’s extravagant costumes and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s intricate lighting, were fascinating, a blend of different periods and styles that nevertheless cohered into something unique and constantly extraordinary. Within them, Richard Jones’ production offered a depth of insight matched by a quirky, off-centre view of the piece that made one look at it with fresh eyes. Smaller roles as well as large ones benefited from this originality of approach: Gwynne Howell’s solid Notary, Andrej Dunaev’s handsomely sung Italian Tenor and Miranda Keys’ Marianne Leitmetzerin all made significant marks. I suspect the staging itself has the makings of a Glyndebourne classic.

Der Rosenkavalier runs at Glyndebourne Festival until 3 July

Opera triumphs at London's Royal Philharmonic Society Awards

15 May 2014, London, UK

Joyce DiDonato as Elena in 'La donna del lago' at Covent Garden
Joyce DiDonato as Elena in 'La donna del lago' at Covent Garden(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Opera and music theatre fared particularly well in this year’s prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Awards held at the Dorchester Hotel in London on 13 May. Welsh National Opera received the award for Opera and Music Theatre, praised for ‘bold and contrasting’ productions of Lulu, Lohengrin and Paul Bunyan. Nominees in this category included Longborough Festival Opera, the Royal Opera House and Opera North.

In the Singer category, Joyce DiDonato headed a strong field which included Barbara Hannigan, Michael Volle and Mark Padmore. The American mezzo was commended for the ‘transcendent beauty’ of her singing in the Royal Opera House’s production of Rossini’s La donna del lago.

Opera also triumphed in the Large-scale Composition category, with George Benjamin’s Written on Skin singled out for its ‘technical skill’ and ‘emotional impact’. Meanwhile, another new opera, Imago by Orlando Gough, written as a community piece, was given the Learning and Participation Award. The opera was co-commissioned by Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera.

Daniel Barenboim took the award in the Conductor category for his Ring cycle at the 2013 BBC Proms, competing against Riccardo Chailly and Andris Nelsons.

Joyce DiDonato will be our Guest Editor for Opera Now's July/August issue. Click here and scroll down for more details.

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